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European far-right politicians just stormed to victory in Italy after achieving historic results in France and Sweden.
“All over Europe, people are striving to take their destiny back into their own hands!” said Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Rally Party.
But if you think there’s a new wave of right-wing radicalism sweeping Europe, you’d be wrong. Something else is going on.
Analysis by POLITICO polling suggests that right-wing parties in the region did not increase their support by just one percentage point on average between the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February and today.
POLITICO looked at the median and average increase for all parties organized in right-wing European Parliament groups of Identity and Democracy, the European Conservatives and Reformists, or unaffiliated parties with far-right political positions.
Overall, the results indicate that if there was an increase in support for far-right parties, it happened several years ago.
The Sweden Democrats’ first gains came after the 2014 election, when the party grew from around 10 percent to 20 percent, the same fifth of the vote it got in that year’s election. The far-right Alternative for Germany AfD in Germany grew rapidly in 2015 and 2016, reaching 14 percent in POLITICO’s poll tracking. In Italy, the Northern League overtook Forza Italia for the first time in early 2015 and peaked in 2019 with 37 percent before starting a downward trend that ended at 9 percent in last month’s election. In the Italian election, voters mostly switched between rival right-wing camps.
The far right has moved from the fringes of politics to the mainstream, influencing not only the political center but also the arena of power.
“There is a normalization of far-right parties as an integral part of the political landscape,” said Cathrine Thorleifsson, who researches extremism at the University of Oslo. “They have been accepted by the voters and also by other, conventional parties.”
The cooperation between the center-right and extreme-right has become less taboo.
“The rise of far-right parties is only part of the story. The promotion and mainstreaming of right-wing extremist parties as well as the adoption of right-wing extremist frameworks and positions from other parties is at least as important.” tweeted Cas Mudde, a leading researcher on the issue.
This could risk destabilizing Europe even more than winning a few percentage points in the polls.
Italy’s far-right zealot Giorgia Meloni is a clear example. While her party takes its origins from groups founded by former fascists, she will now preside over the EU’s third-largest economy.
In Sweden, the center-right party has begun coalition negotiations for a minority government, which would draw on the support of the opposition, most likely from the far-right Sweden Democrats. Far-right parties have also entered governments in Austria, Finland, Estonia and Italy. Other countries are likely to follow suit.
George Simion, the leader of Romania’s far-right Alliance for Union of Romanians (AUR), celebrated Meloni’s victory in Italy and said his party is likely to follow in their footsteps.
Spain goes to the polls next year, and Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez may find it difficult to win re-election. The conservative People’s Party is between five and seven points ahead of Spain’s Socialists in all published opinion polls, but is unlikely to garner enough votes to secure an outright governing majority.
This means that it may have to enter into an agreement with the far-right party Vox, whose leader, Santiago Abascal, is an ally of Meloni. While the People’s Party previously refused to govern with Vox, its newly elected leader, Alberto Núnez-Feijóo, last spring ignited a coalition deal with the ultra-nationalist group in Spain’s central Castilla y León region.
Tom Van Grieken, the right-wing Belgian politician, also pointed to Spain as the next likely example, especially because of the possible cooperation with the PP. “Across Europe we see conservative parties considering breaking the cordon sanitaire,” he said, referring to other parties’ refusal to work with the far right. “They are tired of compromising with their ideological counterparts, the parties on the left end of the spectrum.”
This did not happen overnight. The far right worked hard to shed their extremist, neo-Nazi image.
“In some of the reports about the Sweden Democrats, you would think that they will deport people on trains as soon as they are in power. Come on, these parties have changed,” said an EU official with right-wing affiliations.
The far right invested in “image adjustment and tries to tread lightly on some issues while shamelessly catering to others,” said Nina Wiesehomeier, a political scientist at the IE University of Madrid. “This is particularly evident in Italy right now, where Meloni is clinging to the slogan ‘God, Fatherland, Family’ as a continuation while trying to purge the party of more radical elements.”
In Belgium’s northern region of Flanders, the right-wing Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) expressly rejects the term “extreme right”. Like his colleagues in Italy, Sweden and France, Van Grieken, the party’s president, condemned the more extremist views of his group’s founders and moderated his political message to make it socially acceptable to vote for the far right.
Blatant racism is taboo. Instead, the rhetoric changes to criticize an open-door migration policy. By carefully targeting centrist voters, the far right is aiming for a bigger slice of the pie while still riding on anti-establishment discontent.
“There is a clear fault line between the winners of globalization and the nationalists,” Van Grieken told POLITICO. “This comes on top of the concerns about mass migration, whether it’s in Malmö, Rome or other European cities.”
Now is the time to take advantage of this transformation.
As Europe battles record inflation and Europeans fear exorbitant heating bills, governments are warning of the political consequences of a “winter of discontent.”
“It’s a massive drain on European wealth,” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo recently told POLITICO. “In the current situation, it is difficult to believe in progress, it is very difficult to make progress. So there is a very pessimistic feeling.”
The current war in Ukraine is the latest in a series of crises – in global finance, migration and the pandemic. Experts argue that this is the key to understanding the growing support for the far right.
“Such existential crises have a destabilizing effect and lead to fear,” said Carl Devos, professor of political science at Ghent University. “Fear is breeding ground for the extreme right. People tend to translate that fear and outrage into radical voting behavior.”
Migration and identity politics are less prominent in the media due to the Ukraine war and rising energy prices, but they are still key issues in the right-wing debate.
In Austria, the coalition parties fought over whether asylum seekers should receive climate bonuses. In the Netherlands, the death of a baby at the Ter Apel asylum center led to a renewed debate about the overcrowded migration centers.
The combination of these issues is likely to lead to more right-wing victories across the continent. “The far right offers nationalist, protectionist solutions to the globalized crises,” Thorleifsson said. “We see how the migration issue was off the agenda for a moment during the pandemic, but now it’s back.”
Aitor Hernández-Morales, Camille Gijs and Ana Fota contributed reporting.